On December 20, the Colorado Rockies signed right-handed reliever Brock Huntzinger to a minor league contract for 2016, adding depth to their bullpen at Triple-A Albuquerque. While Huntzinger, 27, has yet to appear in the Major Leagues over his nine-year professional career, he does have a long track record of fairly solid success in the high minor leagues.
For that, it's not too much of a stretch — especially knowing the Rockies' general pitching woes and bullpen depth issues — to imagine him spending some time in Denver in 2016. Here's everything you should know about Huntzinger and then some as we get just a little bit closer to Spring Training every day. (And Merry Christmas!)
Scouting Brock Huntzinger
Huntzinger was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the third round of the 2007 MLB Draft, and reached as high as Boston's 29th-rated prospect in 2008, but other than that scouts have never been high on him as an organizational star. Nevertheless, he had success in seven years in Boston's system, after which he elected minor league free agency, latching on with the Baltimore Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in 2014 and the Oakland Athletics' Triple-A affiliate in 2015.
Huntzinger still has youth on his side for someone entering his tenth professional season, though at 27 certainly his best days as a prospect and future bullpen cog are behind him. Nevertheless, he — like other recent Rockies signee and fellow reliever Brian Schlitter — could stand to impact the Rockies in 2016.
Some applicable stats from his cumulative time in Double-A and Triple-A, as well as his career numbers across all levels:
That doesn't tell the whole story, though. According to Scout.com's Melissa Lockard, Huntzinger was getting hit hard as a starting pitcher in Double-A in 2012, when he asked the Red Sox for a different role:
Huntzinger repeated at the Double-A level at the outset of the 2012 season, but after just a few starts, it was clear that Double-A hitters were having no trouble getting to Huntzinger, especially the second time through the line-up. He requested a move to the bullpen at that point and the Red Sox accommodated him. The change was a career-saver for Huntzinger.
Here are Huntzinger's statistics after moving to the bullpen full-time; he put up great numbers the last several years before hiccuping in 2015 at Nashville, the Athletics' Triple-A affiliate:
Obviously, 2013 was Huntzinger's time to break through to the big leagues, but he missed his window in what has thus far been the best season of his career. If only the Sox weren't on their way to the World Series, perhaps he would have been a September call-up for a lesser squad that summer. Such is baseball! Now, the Rockies are hoping Huntzinger is closer to his '12-'14 self than the '15 version.
Huntzinger has never really been a high strikeout pitcher, but he does some things the Rockies should like, with generally strong strikeout-to-walk splits, low home run totals, and — when he's at his best — little baserunner traffic. However, there are also some negatives that will be exploited in Albuquerque.
Huntzinger is a three-pitch pitcher who doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he pitches aggressively and throws a lot of strikes. The right-hander’s fastball sits generally 90-93 and gets a little late movement, although it is mostly straight. He also has a slider that can be a strike-out pitch for him when he is throwing it well and a change-up that mixes in well with his other two pitches.
Throughout his career, Huntzinger has primarily been a flyball pitcher. He has occasionally been prone to giving up the longball, although he has been much better at keeping the ball in the park since becoming a reliever.
His HR/9 splits are generally pretty good, but a flyball pitcher without plus velocity or overwhelming stuff doesn't have much of a margin for error, less so in Albuquerque, and much less so at the big league level in a park like Coors Field.
Here are a few different video angles of Huntzinger, first at Spring Training in 2014 with the Orioles:
And second, even though it's a few years older, here's a great look at his mechanics from the side profile during his stint in the Arizona Fall League:
Huntzinger's best comp on the Rockies
Huntzinger doesn't have nearly the stuff of this pitcher, but his career trajectory could be something like that of Justin Miller, a cast-off from other organizations who finally got a chance with the Rockies and might just make the most of it as part of an otherwise-depleted bullpen. Granted, Miller has more velocity, sharper stuff, and misses far more bats than Huntzinger, but the newcomer's strong minor league career combined with little by way of bigger opportunities could make him 2016's version of Miller's 2015 mini-breakout.
Regarding his stuff, Huntzinger may be closer to former Rockies reliever Brooks Brown: a longtime minor league starter and high-round draft pick who, once converted to a reliever, started throwing lots of strikes with low- to mid-90s stuff without recording high walk or strikeout rates. As Brown showed in parts of the last two seasons, there's value in that. To what degree and frequency we ever see that value at Coors Field with Huntzinger will depend more on the Rockies' depth chart ahead of him than his own performance in Albuquerque, unless he really asserts himself in the Pacific Coast League in 2016.
What to expect in 2016
Obviously, we likely won't see Huntzinger at Coors Field in 2016; on a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation to Spring Training, he may never even make it out of camp depending on his spring performance, and the righty could be out of the Rockies' organization in another few months. But there's a pretty solid chance he'll make up one of the key components of the Isotopes' bullpen in '16, for what that's worth.
At 27 years old, Huntzinger is not young, but he's also not old in baseball years yet, and the Rockies probably represent one of his last good chances to become a Major Leaguer. The odds are against him, but if his numbers are anything like they were in Triple-A 'pens from 2012 through 2014, well, he's got as good a chance as anyone to break through in Denver next summer.